Rocky runs and Philly cheesesteaks

With less than 48 hours in Philadelphia and an ambitious itinerary featuring Rocky filming locations, bells, Philly cheesesteaks and street art, we had no choice but to hit the ground running…

πŸ›€ The Pennsylvanian Railroad

Our route from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia started with a sunrise walk across the David McCullough Bridge on our way to Pittsburgh Union Station. I had to do extensive Google street-viewing the night before to check that the whole route had pavements (not a guarantee here!), but in the end, this wasn’t the problem – finding the station entrance was! I’d routed us towards the grand station entrance, but only after rattling each of the locked front doors did we realise that this was no longer part of the station. It turns out that the original station building was converted into residential and commercial space in 1988, and the current station is now housed in an ugly annex which I mistook for a car park! Anyway, we used all our contingency time doing laps of the building but made it onto the train just in time πŸ˜…

Our final Amtrak journey took 7.5 hours to cover the 476 km to Philadelphia. As always, it was a pleasure watching the landscape slowly change outside the windows – from the forested hills, gorges and steel bridges of southwestern Pennsylvania to the open landscape and neat farms of eastern Pennsylvania.

We arrived at Philadelphia’s grand and catchily named William H. Gray III 30th Street Station. After Cleveland and Pittsburgh’s rather under-utilised stations, it was encouraging to be back in a bustling transport hub once again.

πŸƒ Gonna fly now (running like Rocky Balboa)

The Rocky franchise is famously set in Philadelphia, and as a big fan, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to recreate his epic training run through the city. I set out just after sunrise with my headphones on and my phone loaded with the Rocky soundtrack. My first stop was the Italian Market along 9th Street, which has barely changed since the original Rocky movie was filmed in the 1970s. With a few hours until the market opened for business, I had the road to myself for the moment.

My route continued through leafy residential streets towards the increasingly commercial city downtown and along the grand Benjamin Franklin Parkway to the iconic Philadelphia Library stairs. By this point the temperature was already hitting 30 degrees, even though it was still only 07:20 in the morning. Time for a shower and some coffee!

πŸ”” Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell

Philadelphia is often referred to as the “birthplace of America”, since it’s where the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution were debated and adopted back in 1776. We visited this very site, which is now known as Independence Hall, but at the time was the Pennsylvania State House.

We also had the chance to check out the Liberty Bell, a 940 kg symbol of independence. We enjoyed learning (from our friend George) that this symbol of American patriotism was actually cast in London, although to our amusement we didn’t see this mentioned anywhere in the exhibit surrounding the bell. Then again, given it cracked shortly after arriving in Philadelphia, maybe it’s not something to shout about…

πŸ₯– Searching for the perfect Philly cheesesteak

Philly cheesesteaks (or just cheesesteaks, as they’re known in Philadelphia) are an absolute city staple. They consist of thinly sliced rib-eye steak packed into a bread roll along with (optional) sautΓ©ed onions and (crucial) melted cheese. Traditionally Cheez Whiz is used, which is an orange-yellow spreadable cheese, but trust us – it’s way better than it sounds! The cheesesteaks were pretty filling too, and we found that one each more than satisfied us for dinner. We sampled as many as our time in the city and appetites would allow, and our favourites came from Sonny’s Famous Steaks. They managed to pack a ton of flavour into the roll as well as keeping the steak moist enough not to need any further sauce, but not to the extent that it turned into a dripping mess. Now, I don’t think the end result is supposed to look pretty, but we really did our best in photo below!

πŸ§‘β€πŸŽ¨ Walking the Mural Mile

The street art programme in Philadelphia began in 1984 as an attempt to beautify the city and reduce the amount of graffiti. Since then, the programme has been hugely successful, with Philadelphia becoming undoubtedly the street art capital of the US, and with the medium bridging many divides within the city’s communities. The programme is still active today, and we saw evidence of several new murals in progress. The art works cover themes such as Philadelphia’s history, civil rights, diversity and inclusion. We thoroughly enjoyed walking the Mural Mile, and tried to take as many photos as possible along the way.

For some reason, we both had the preconception that Philadelphia was a bit rough, so it wasn’t really on our radar until we happened across our guidebook’s description of it as a city with “rich history and small town charm”. And sure enough, we loved Philadelphia almost immediately. The narrow streets and mixture of high-rise and residential neighbourhoods gave the city an almost European feel. Downtown Philadelphia was walkable too, with most neighbourhoods interspersed with leafy parks to escape the summer heat. Sitting in some of these parks, I could have easily mistaken the scene for a London park, had it not been for the Italian-American accents surrounding us.

From Philadelphia, we hopped on a bus to our final stop in the US; New York City.

Churches of beer and learning β›ͺοΈπŸΊπŸ§‘β€πŸŽ“

From Amish Country, we drove 157 km east to reach the city of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania.

Like Minneapolis, Pittsburgh’s “Rust Belt” status is worn with pride throughout the city. Its metalwork heritage is celebrated through the local “Steelers” football team, and some of the city’s 446 (!) bridges have received a colourful facelift in recent years.

Our first stop was Pittsburgh University’s Cathedral of Learning. Built in 1926, this creation is a bizarre combination of a 163 m tall skyscraper, a neo-gothic cathedral and a modern day university. The exterior and interior are such strong contrasts that it’s hard to believe they’re the same building at all.

The Cathedral of Learning also features 31 nationality rooms surrounding the neo-gothic main hall. Each room is themed after a particular nationality or culture at a specific time in history. These rooms are as functional as they are decorative, with many classroom features (such as blackboards or projectors) hidden within historical artefacts. I’d actually visited previously (on a conference in 2012) and thought the building was cool enough to bring Sara back for a second visit. I’m not sure what was better – the infectious enthusiasm of our tour guide this time, or the thrill of being given a large iron key and being left to my own devices on my last visit! Either way, the rooms were really interesting, with lots of hidden symbolism and cool craftsmanship.

Just outside the Cathedral of Learning, we came across a statue of Dippy, the world-famous Diplodocus. I had no idea that the skeleton that used to be housed within London’s Natural History Museum (currently in Coventry) is actually a cast of the original, which is on display inside Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I also love that the original skeleton, the cast, and this statue all share the same benevolent name of “Dippy” that was given in 1907 and has stood the test of time. Not at all confusing!

Statue of Dippy in front of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Just over 100 km southeast of Pittsburgh lies Fallingwater; arguably Frank Lloyd Wright‘s most famous building. Wright designed the building as a summer home for the Kaufmanns, a wealthy family from Pittsburgh and the owners of the Kaufmann’s Department Store. Apparently, the construction cost went five times over budget, although this didn’t seem to bother them very much. While a visit to Fallingwater had been high on Sara’s list, I’m normally less of a fan of residential architecture. But I have to admit it didn’t take long before I became pretty envious of the Kaufmann family’s beautiful holiday home!

The building is named for its unique construction directly above a river, which literally flows right through the building. As a result, the sound of falling water can be heard throughout every room in the main building.

We were fortunate enough to visit on a beautifully sunny day, which felt like redemption after our total washout in Oak Park, Chicago. This made the sun terraces extra inviting, which was lucky as we learned they make up nearly half of the building’s total square footage!

We left Fallingwater with a whole 40 minutes of contingency on top of the time needed to drive back to Pittsburgh to return our hire car. However, this time rapidly evaporated when we got stuck behind a slow-moving dumper-truck, hit two sets of roadworks, were slowed by general rush hour traffic, stopped for fuel, and took an unintentional detour across the Allegheny River on our final approach to the rental centre. In the end, we screeched into the car park with a whole 10 minutes left on the clock, and we were very relieved to hand over the keys just before they closed for the day. Although in a generally unhelpful location, the rental centre did happen to be just down the road from the Church Brew Works – a 1902 church-come-brewery, which quickly washed away our hire car stresses.

With the weather still on our side, we spent the rest of the evening on Mt Washington overlooking Pittsburgh’s downtown.

Fortunately for us, the mountain is easily navigated by the Duquesne and Monongahela historic funicular railways, which traverse the incline in a matter of minutes. The former even hosts a museum at its top station where you can see the original hoisting equipment in action as the car runs up and down.

Watching the sun set and the sky turn pinky-blue behind the downtown skyline felt like a fitting end to our final evening in Pittsburgh. Next, we hopped back on an Amtrak train one last time, bound for Philadelphia, the “birthplace of America”.